Things have been going very well under saddle. Apart, that is, from the saddle itself, which is almost certainly now too snug for the horse who has muscled up so well since he was fitted for that saddle. We have a saddle fitter booked who is coming to see us in about 3 weeks, with a van full of saddles and the smile that comes from knowing there’s very little chance the existing saddle can be made to fit, so it’s probably going to have to be another saddle rather than a little re-flock. Slipping my fingers under the pommel when I’m onboard, I’m pretty sure it’s digging in, and pretty sure that’s the un-adjustable tree of the saddle that I can feel. I have asked them to bring out any second-hand saddles that would do for us as well as the new ones, but I won’t count my chickens that any of the second-hand ones will fit.
I also have the unease that comes of riding him in a saddle I know doesn’t fit as well as it should. He’s not showing any negative signs from it though, so it obviously doesn’t feel as bad as when the flocking compacted this time last year, when he would only move in straight lines because it dug in if he bent to go around a corner.
Anyway, although I am concerned about the saddle and the expense of a replacement, the balance is that other things are going very well for Drifter and I. In terms of my riding and his way of going, we continue to make great progress. When I saw Lee Pearson, which I think was only last week (can that be right?) I rode in a running martingale. While it’s not dressage legal, so I wasn’t sure what he’d think, I wanted to present us as we train, which lately has been with the martingale. Lee had no problem with that, and said that if it worked for us as a training aid, by all means ride with it. I said I felt I couldn’t get him on the bit consistently without the martingale yet and I felt it was better to get him working well and developing his muscles in it, and then take it off in the future. He agreed with that, but he also said I should make sure that from time to time I take it off and see what we can manage without it. He said he thought I’d be able to do without it sooner than I might think.
I had a couple of flatwork sessions alone in the days after the session with Lee, and felt like I worked well on the pointers he’d given us. For the first time I realised that I had a soft, elastic contact; a supple yielding frame. Drifter went to lean through my left hand and as I corrected him for it I realised what I was experiencing prior to that attempt to lean. Rather than the constant tug of war at the front end we had achieved the goal. He was on the bit without tension, moving well from behind, into my hand, but not against my hand. This is new for us. In fact it’s new for me. I’ve never felt this on any horse before. Aside from the occasional blip, and the erratic variables that our canters are made from, we managed to keep that feeling a constant presence until our private jump lesson on Thursday.
On Thursday the tug of war was back, but he does get very excited jumping, and to be soft in the hand for jumping would be a lot to ask just yet. And so we jumped. It was excellent. We had no disagreements and no hairy moments, although there was one massive leap which shook me forward over his neck and caused the instructor to dryly comment, “This one can really jump!” Apparently he thought he needed to take off very early, necessitating the huge jump to be sure to clear the tiny cross-pole. As we were in trot at the time I’m not sure quite why, but maybe if I could have seen what he did it would have made more sense.
One of the new things that we did was to have two cross pole jumps with two strides between them; jump the first from trot and then pick up the canter on landing so we would jump the second from canter.
I found the concept of picking up canter without a corner rather a novel idea, and being naturally suspicious of novelty, I asked if I could try getting a canter on the straight without a jump first. The instructor agreed, and had me try picking up the canter on the long sides of the school rather than in the corners or on a circle (which were the only places I’d picked up canter in the past). Once I’d had a go at that we tried it with the jumps in and it went well. I did it on the first attempt but couldn’t manage it again until the fourth attempt. Nevertheless I was very pleased. She left me with a homework flatwork exercise: Trot down the centre line and decide whether you’re going to pick up left or right canter. Over X, canter on the lead you decided, continuing on the centre line and tracking right or left depending on which canter you chose. She told me it would be hard but it would be a really useful exercise.
The next time I rode, unfortunately, although we were alone we were in a school full of jumps, and the centre-line was entirely blocked. So we weren’t able to try out our new idea. Because the school was full of jumps, Drifter had his excited jumping head on, so I decided to make the best of what I had to work with. We had a workout weaving in and out between the jumps, picking up canter in random places, trying to steady the canter despite his excitement. About half way through we had some unexpected lateral work, when some lightweight plastic numbers, which had been used to number the jumps and then left on the fence, blew straight at us as we cantered past. It was the largest spook I’ve experienced from him, but it didn’t unbalance me and I brought him back to them to show him they weren’t scary. Which would have gone better if another gust hadn’t thrown another 3 straight at him. Oops, bad human. But this time he wasn’t nearly as worried or surprised and I hopped off, gathered them up and weighted them down and we continued. I was pleased with the way it all turned out, because it hadn’t been an ideal situation but nothing bad had happened and I hadn’t been worried or shaken by it.
When I rode this morning we did not have to dodge jumps, but we did have a relatively short time and we were sharing a school, so I had limited opportunity to try the new “canter at X and go straight” idea. I did have a few goes though. I had expected to find it easier on the his easy left rein and harder on the traditionally weak right rein, but he surprised me. On the right rein I asked for the bend, asked for the canter, got it pretty much on X, kept straight-ish and turned right at the end of the school. All good. On the left rein though, it was another story. It was hard for me to get the bend right before asking for the canter. He is stiffer that way and it really exposed it. He even went on the wrong leg, i.e. he took the difficult right lead, upon which he is still unbalanced, presumably because I couldn’t get the bend right. Eventually we did get the correct left lead just after X but I could not keep him anywhere near the centre line and we veered off to the left cutting off about a third of the length of the school. Still, that was an improvement on the previous attempts and I had to leave it there.
Aside from when he got a bit over excited from the cantering, throughout today’s ride we had softness in the contact and he was carrying himself well. In all of the walk and trot work I felt he was in a nice outline. At no point did he try to lift his head, but stayed seeking the bit. Very nice. What I haven’t told you yet is that we weren’t using the martingale. I thought I’d take Lee’s advice and try without it, even though I thought we still needed it, just to get a ground-line on where we were. But apparently I can do without it! I’ll still use it for jumping, because when there are jumps there is every chance that he’ll get over excited, throw his head up and go like a giraffe every now and then, but when it comes to dressage, we can get that outline without the forbidden martingale. Hurray!